Book reviews: 21 September
N-W by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)
N-W is a book about many things, not least (as its title might suggest) a socio-economically and ethnically diverse patch of northwest London. But it's also about time or 'time as a relative experience' – the idea of which is all that charity worker Leah Hanwell has retained from her philosophy degree.
Now married but childless, she's aware that she is 'ageing in dog years. Her 35 is seven times [her husband's]'. Meanwhile, Leah's best friend and former sink schoolmate, Natalie, is also conscious of time's march. A successful but unhappy barrister and mother of two, she longs for things to slow down: 'She had been eight for 100 years. She was 34 for seven minutes.'
Time as a relative experience is a concept familiar to Zadie Smith's many fans, too: N-W seems to have been a lot longer than seven years in gestation. But it's been worth the wait. This is Smith's best book yet: less a conventional novel than a triptych, with Leah and Natalie's stories flanking that of likeable ex-drug-addict-cum-dealer Felix Cooper, also 30-something but (it seems) with several lifetimes already behind him.
Full of typically and joyously brilliant dialogue, Zadie Smith's N-W is also complex, searching, unsettling – and riveting. Outstanding.
A HOME FOR THE HEART: 11 IDEAS TO BALANCE YOUR LIFE by Angela Neustatter (Gibson Square, £9.99)
This book is a timely, thoughtful exploration of the contemporary value of the home, rather than any straightforward celebration. What might 'home' mean today in rapidly changing Britain, where on the one hand the traditional nuclear family is disintegrating, but on the other hand, escalating house prices mean young people are forced to live with their parents for far longer than previously? Neustatter argues home is more than just where we live; it is a repository of emotions, decisions and memories.
It was prompted by the author's own recent redefi nition of her family life, when she and her husband decide to stay together in their home but lead more separate lives; while her son and his family decided to move back, so that his Japanese wife would feel less isolated living in an extended family.
The chapters that follow examine many situations and issues primarily via interviews. She looks, for example, at polygamous and monogamous family life, homelessness and children, 'framilys' based on friendship and needs, rather than traditional blood ties, and she considers how ageing populations are transforming our idea of home life.
The book chapters read a little too much like extended newspaper opinion columns in places, and the wide range of material from interviews and books on occasion seemed to drift rather than follow a linear argument: it is a personal examination, not a sociological study. But all in all, the book provides much food for thought about an everyday but mutable idea in our changing world.
BRING ME SUNSHINE by Charlie Connelly (Little, Brown, £12.99)
Twenty-twelve – the year with everything but a summer... over the last few months, the weather has played a disproportionate role in general conversation, but those who imagine that this is the worst it's been, ever, should take a look at 1816. According to Charlie Connelly in this intriguing small book, that was the year when a 'series of global volcanic eruptions... caused worldwide temperatures to decrease by a degree. A constant haze hung over Britain, and freezing wet weather continued for most of the year, ruining crops and leading to food shortages and riots'. Sound familiar? Or consider the great storm of November 1703, the 'yardstick by which all our weather events are measured'. A tornado was reported in Oxford, a 300-mile wall of wind triggered by an unprecedented low of 950 millibars moved east-north-east at 170mph (hurricane force 12 begins at 70mph). Eight thousand people were killed, 200 ships, 800 houses and 100 churches were destroyed, a storm surge in the Severn estuary flooded Bristol, and a chimney collapsed at Wells Palace, killing the Bishop of Wells and his wife. Connelly includes other weatherrelated facts and figures (lightning contains a billion volts; in 1901 the London smog was so thick people couldn't see their own feet), notes on weather crackpots and the birth of the weather forecast.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
A landscape of memory
Amicia de Moubray on architect and heiress Sarah Losh
THE PINECONE: THE STORY OF SARAH LOSH, FORGOTTEN ROMANTIC HEROINE – ANTIQUARIAN,
ARCHITECT AND VISIONARY by Jenny Uglow (Faber & Faber, £20)
Jenny Uglow is to be applauded for rescuing the remarkable Sarah Losh (1786-1853) from oblivion. Hitherto known only to select architectural buffs and lovers of Cumbria, Sarah Losh, heiress to an industrial fortune, is compelling on many levels: highly intelligent and independent, with a questing mind, she had radical political views, was a fi ne mathematician and along with many of her contemporaries, was fascinated by fossils. But it is her architectural legacy that is the thrilling discovery. She never married and lived with her sister (also unmarried) on a landed estate, Woodside, five miles from Carlisle in the village of Wreay.
Any visitor to Wreay will be fascinated to discover the small Romanesque church she built in 1842, described by Nikolaus Pevsner as 'a crazy building without any doubt' and around it 'a whole landscape of memory', a Celtic cross, an extraordinary austere mausoleum and a chapel copied from ancient ruins, uncovered among Cornish dunes.
As well as cottages, schools and wells, all were designed in her own idiosyncratic style. The church provides an insight into her interests: the alabaster cut-out windows based on fossils found in coalmines, the doors and windows carved with lotus flowers, pinecones, fossils, insects and birds. The pinecone was a literal embodiment of the 'Sacred Geometry' of nature, its bracts swirling in opposing directions from the base, following the spiralling Fibonacci sequence, which achieves a unique ratio, the Golden Mean.
The Losh sisters were part of a close family web of highly intelligent, high-achieving, prominent figures in Carlisle and Newcastle society of the period. What comes across strongly is the flourishing intellectual life and its concurrent societies in the North in the early 19th century. This is brought vividly to life by Uglow, as well as the evolution of Carlisle as a throbbing industrial hub: the collieries, the salt-pans at North and South Shields, the potters, the furnaces of lead and iron works and the steaming vats of soap-makers, not to mention the shipbuilders yards. For anyone who enjoys history and strong characters, this is an absorbing read.
The barminess of Edward VII
BERTIE: A LIFE OF EDWARD VII by Jane Ridley (Chatto, £30)
Victoria and Albert presided over a sometimes breathtakingly odd version of family life. Much of the barminess centred on Bertie, first in line to the throne and regularly scolded by his mother for dullness, laziness and frivolity. Bertie responded by visiting brothels and causing chaos in other people's domestic affairs. He married Alexandra of Denmark, who seems never to have fallen out of love with him, however much trouble he got into with beauties such as Lillie Langtry.
Bertie had to wait until he was 60 before assuming the throne on his mother's death in 1901. Despite his desire to make an impact, his role as king was essentially ceremonial; he would, as his grandson the Duke of Windsor noted, 'snip a ribbon and declare something open, returning to Knowsley to dine with his girlfriends'.
A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH: A HISTORY OF THE WOMEN'S INSTITUTE by Jane Robinson (Virago, £9.99)
Robinson's entertaining book is the first full history of the WI – and, as Tony Blair knows to his cost, there's a lot more to them than jam and Jerusalem. Based on WI archives and first-hand accounts, Robinson illustrates how the WI became one of the most powerful organisations in the UK. Mel Clarke
YES PAPA! MRS CHAPONE AND THE BLUESTOCKING CIRCLE by Barbara Eaton (Francis Boutle, £14.99)
Hester Chapone (1727-1801) was a writer and self-educated Bluestocking intellectual. Her bestselling book, Letters On The Improvement Of The Mind (1773), was a plea that girls deserved education as much as their brothers. This first biography of Chapone shows how 18th-century women struggled to be able to live a life of the mind. SB
A HISTORY OF ANCIENT BRITAIN by Neil Oliver (Phoenix, £8.99)
Based on his BBC series, Oliver focuses on the fi rst people to live on these islands. Habitation began roughly one million years ago, and has continued, interrupted by ice ages, tsunamis and floods, ever since. Oliver, an archaeologist whose long black hair and piercing gaze has earned him superstar status, is a fascinating guide. LS
EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION by Andrew Adonis (Biteback, £12.99)
What a fine mess we're in might be the reaction to the question of schooling in this country – but it's not all Adonis's fault. Here, the architect of New Labour's flagship programme to change comprehensive schools into city academies explains his policy on reforming England's schools.
THE LIGHTHOUSE by Alison Moore (Salt, £8.99)
Shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, Moore's intense tale of a man embarking on a restorative walking tour to escape domestic meltdown provides a hauntingly complex read.
The midwives of the East End
Clare Russell revels in Jennifer Worth's reissued illustrated memoir
CALL THE MIDWIFE, ILLUSTRATED EDITION by Jennifer Worth (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)
Jennifer Worth, who died last year, published her book Call The Midwife in 2002. Since then it's become a bestseller and a popular television programme.
This is an illustrated version of the book, studded with drawings and wonderful black-and-white photographs of the East End – where Jennifer practised – in the 1950s. At that time, the East End was still suffering from the effects of heavy bombing during the Second World War.
Worth began her training at a convent near Aldgate, an order of nuns who had been working in the slums since the 1870s.
'Had anyone told me,' Worth begins, 'two years earlier that I would be going to a convent for midwifery training, I would have run a mile.'
The kind of world in which she found herself is revealed here: ancient bomb-blasted streets, tenements draped with laundry hanging from the balconies, whole families living in tiny rooms that saw service as kitchen, bathroom and bedroom, rows of National Adoption Society babies in their canvas cots being cared for by nurses, and the bomb sites that doubled as playgrounds for the East End children.
Some pictures are very moving: a great-granny cuddles a newborn baby, a workhouse nurse holds an emaciated child. Others – a small girl being transported in a tin bath on a hop-picking expedition, children peering through a window at Father Christmas – show a world of cheerful community spirit and fun.
Worth's publishers have included photographs from her own family albums alongside the shots of bombed-out buildings and ragamuffin children, so that you get an even clearer sense of this lost world – those who lived it, and those who tried to make it more bearable.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"It is not always she who appears most kindly in her interest who is the safe sharer of sacred (maybe sorrowful) secrets! Charming manners do not always connote sincerity of heart!”The Lady. In Confidence. 4th April, 1918